So far in this epic position-by-position breakdown of the two best teams in the AL Central, we’ve looked at the corner and middle infielders for the Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians. Today, we turn to the outfield—which might be where we’ll have to start when we look back on the 2012 Indians and whether or not the season was a success or failure, this. Allow me to explain.
The Tigers have spent a lot—and I do mean a lot—of money on their team over the past few seasons. Motown now has a baseball team with a total payroll well over the $100 million mark. That’s pretty impressive considering their market really isn’t all that much different from Cleveland’s.
But not a single penny of all this frivolous spending has gone towards improving this year’s outfield. That’s significant considering that nothing about their current outfield really stands out. They have some nice pieces, but for the most part it’s a fairly mediocre group. Here’s how they break down along with their 2011 stats:
- LF Ryan Raburn: .256/.297/.432, 14 HR, 49 RBI, -2.3 UZR, 1.2 fWAR
- CF Austin Jackson: .249/.317/.374, 10 HR, 45 RBI, 7.9 UZR, 2.8 fWAR
- RF Brennan Boesch: .283/.341/.458, 16 HR, 54 RBI, -5.8 UZR, 1.7 fWAR
And the reserves:
- Delmon Young: .268/.302/.393, 12 HR, 64 RBI, -2.8 UZR, 0.4 fWAR
- Don Kelly: .245/.291/.381, 7 HR, 28 RBI, 3.1 UZR, 0.6 fWAR
Young is currently projected to be the everyday DH and will most likely play left field on when Fielder or Cabrera get a day off from playing defense. Kelly is Detroit’s super utility player, having logged time at all three outfield positions as well as catcher, first, and third base. The majority of his appearances came as a late game defensive substitution.
For a team that went as far in the playoffs as the Tigers last season it’s kind of surprising to see how little value they have in their outfield. From a statistical standpoint there isn’t really a lot to like here. All three starters were about average or a little below, and the backups weren’t too far above replacement level.
But is there more than meets the eye here? The oldest player on this list Kelly at 31. Jackson, Young, and Boesch are still in their mid-20’s. Every single one of these players is still in his athletic prime and still has room to grow as a major league player. If anything, they should improve in 2012. I’m sure Detroit is banking on that as well.
Second, Young and Jackson both have very high ceilings in terms of their peak potential. Young is a former No. 1 overall draft pick and was once expected to become what Cabrera and Fielder already are. Many pundits believe he was the spark that helped propel the Tigers to the AL Central crown last year and his injured oblique in the playoffs killed any shot they had to win it all (to the extent that a player who produced 0.1 fWAR for Detroit can fuel a 15-game deficit).
Jackson is more of a throwback player, and he may have the highest ceiling of them all. He isn’t valued for home runs and RBI. Rather, Jackson’s value comes from his speed. His ability to cover a large area of the outfield and wreak havoc on the base paths is what the Tigers value above all else. For Jackson, it’s all about getting on base (though with a .317 OBP there’s a lot of room for growth), stretching singles into doubles, and putting pressure on opposing pitchers. In 2011 he finished with 22 stolen bases and 90 runs scored. Both numbers should increase with experience and if Jim Leyland ever gives him the green light to go on his own.
That’s why you have to look at the big picture when it comes to the Tigers’ outfield. The numbers don’t wow you now, but that doesn’t mean they won’t at some point in the future. There’s room for growth here and barring any setbacks, this group has the potential to become a formidable outfield.
Yet the Indians’ outfield is a much more formidable group than what Detroit will be trotting out there every day this season—that’s provided they can stay healthy, something that was easier said than done in 2011. They still have to make it through spring training, but as of right now the projected starters are:
- LF Michael Brantley: .266/.318/.384, 7 HR, 46 RBI, -0.7 UZR, 1.4 fWAR
- CF Grady Sizemore: .224/.285/.422, 10 HR, 32 RBI, -5.8 UZR, 0.2 fWAR
- RF Shin-Soo Choo: .259/.344/.390, 8 HR, 36 RBI, 2.0 UZR, 1.4 fWAR
With some combination of the following players in reserve:
- Ryan Spilborghs: .210/.283/.305, 3 HR, 22 RBI, -2.4 UZR. -1.1 fWAR
- Shelley Duncan: .260/.324/.484, 11 HR, 47 RBI, -3.0 UZR, 0.9 fWAR
- Ezequiel Carrera: .243/.301/.312, 0 HR, 14 RBI, 0.3 UZR. 0.3 fWAR
- Aaron Cunningham: .178/.257/.367, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 1.9 UZR, 0.3 fWAR
Based on those numbers alone, Indians are in a very good situation. You have to look at them in the proper context to really understand why sometimes numbers can be a bit deceiving.
The Indians outfield in 2011 was an absolute disaster. Between all of the injuries and off-field issues that had to be dealt with the projected everyday starting outfield never really came together. It got so bad at one point that Luis Valbuena was thrust into left field, where the baseball gods ultimately found and humiliated him.
The everyday left fielder should be Brantley. He’s proven himself to be a legitimate major leaguer with flashes of All-Star potential and a valuable skill set that mixes both speed and power into a nice little package. Some have argued that Brantley should move to center, but it’s questionable how well his range would hold up there. Brantley should continue to hold down the fort in left field, a position that he has made his own, and ultimately is most valuable to the Indians.
Choo had an awful 2011, but based on his past performance he’s quite possibly the Indians’ best all-around player and a legit All-Star talent. Much of his poor production in 2011 stemmed from an embarrassing DUI incident and a series of injuries all resulting from horrendous bad luck. Yet he was worth 11 fWAR in2009 and 2010, and he’s also a former 20/20 guy. To put it bluntly, Choo is a stud. If he can get his head on straight and stay healthy, there’s no reason why he can’t be the Indians’ best player once again.
Then there is the enigma that is Sizemore. Sizemore’s game has been based around speed and all-out hustle from day one. For a player with a style like that, knee operations can’t be a good thing. It’s obvious Sizemore has lost a step or twelve, but that doesn’t mean he can’t evolve. We see players do that all the time. What it comes down to for Sizemore is can he stay healthy, cut down on his strikeouts, and start showing the power and plate discipline he demonstrated earlier in his career. Is the former All-Star still in there somewhere? We’re all going to find out.
The Verdict: This one is tough, or at least tougher than I thought it would be. It all comes down to which stance you prefer to take when analyzing both of these teams. It’s “What did you do for me in the past?” vs. “What have you done for me lately?” If you like to bank on past performances and think recent history should be placed in such a context then you’d give the edge to the Indians. If you see last year’s performances as better predictors of what’s to come in the future then you’d prefer the Tigers.
Personally, I have to take the talent in this situation and I feel like the Indians have more of it. With Brantley, Sizemore, and Choo, the Indians have three players with the potential to be All-Stars provided they can stay healthy. Great as Detroit’s lineup is, the Tigers’ outfield just doesn’t have that type of potential.